Commercial space vehicle operators are becoming more common in the national airspace, and the number of orbital and sub-orbital passenger space flights is expected to increase significantly over the next decade.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed or permitted more than 300 launches and reentries by commercial space companies since 1989. Roughly one-third of those launches and reentries have happened since 2010 when the first private company successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and recovered it.
When space vehicles are operated—when a rocket is launched, for example—FAA blocks large areas of airspace for extended periods of time. Concepts from FAA’s NextGen Space Vehicle Operations (SVO) program aim to dynamically and automatically block airspace as needed.
“Managing air traffic will become more complicated as commercial space operations increase,” said Volpe aerospace engineer Nicholas Richardson. “The idea here is to reduce the impact of space vehicles on air traffic, while also maintaining a high level of safety.”
FAA began by conducting a series of SVO risk assessments in late-2014 to demonstrate and evaluate these concepts for space vehicle launch and re-entry. Researchers performed human-in-the-loop simulations, where human participants interacted with automated systems.
Human-in-the-loop test procedures were performed at the NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability (NIEC) facility at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in New Jersey. Volpe supported the effort by modifying air traffic management software to process and display space vehicle trajectories, associated hazard areas, and no-fly zones.
Volpe integrated and tested the software in the NIEC lab, and actively supported two weeks of demonstrations of the SVO concepts with air traffic controllers and subject matter experts. The Volpe-modified software, known as NextGen Traffic Management System, supports these concept demonstrations and evaluations by air traffic managers.
“We’re continuing to support FAA by further enhancing the traffic management system to evaluate a spectrum of space vehicle configurations and scenarios,” Richardson said. “This software is now also being used for other activities, including research and evaluation of advanced automation capabilities for other future air transportation systems.”